In the latest report by the National Institute of Mental Health it’s estimated that about 18% of people in the US over the age of 18 suffer from some kind of anxiety disorder, whether it be generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, phobias, OCD, PTSD, or a related illness. Another study by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America found that 13% of college students had some kind of anxiety disorder.
I am one of those people.
While certain genetic factors can increase the likelihood a person will have a mental illness, for the most part, they aren’t genetic. And that means that even though I’ve been struggling to manage my anxiety since I was in middle school my parents have never lived through a day with GAD. They don’t understand what an anxiety attack feels like, the way I overthink everything so far beyond what is healthy that my head is spinning, the physical symptoms of my disorder that I try to deal with, and the fact that it isn’t just being nervous.
Sometimes talking to my parents about my anxiety is almost as bad as dealing with the actual disorder and I know they’re not trying to make it hard but sometimes I just really bad at explaining, especially during what they call “an episode”. So now, on a day when I’m managing pretty well, here’s what I wish they understood when I say “it’s just my anxiety”.
Having an anxiety disorder isn’t just being nervous. In fact, the symptoms of an anxiety attack are very rarely limited to things associated with the normal perception of “nervous”. For example, my attacks very often leave me feeling extremely irritable and withdrawn. I don’t want anyone to touch me, talk to me, or even look at me. For other people an anxiety attack can look like anger, sadness, or a range of other emotions. So yes, it could me worrying, stressing, or being nervous (and it often is) but a lot of the time it isn’t.
On top of that, there are a lot of physical symptoms and attributes of anxiety that often get ignored. Remember those presentations in middle school about what the definition of stress is and ways it effects your body? Those are also some very real symptoms of anxiety disorders. Anxiety attacks can include a racing heart, trouble breathing, shaking/tremors, headaches (some of which can literally shut you down for the whole day because they’re so bad), muscle tension, etc. Long term anxiety can cause ulcers, hair loss, insomnia, and even muscle damage. So when you say it’s all in my head and if I just breathe it’ll all be okay you’re actually wrong and it’s comes across very condescending, especially when I’m already trying to deal with being in the middle of an anxiety attack.
Another thing I wish my parents understood is that a lot of the time my anxiety doesn’t have a specific trigger. When I tell you I’m having a hard time with my anxiety and you say, “well what are you anxious about?” it makes me want to scream. I don’t know what I’m anxious about but I am and my heart is racing and I can’t breathe so please just give me some space. I can’t explain to you what’s causing it so asking repeatedly is just going to frustrate you and me.
That being said, sometimes it can have a very clear trigger. Whether that be a reminder of something painful or traumatic from my past, finals week, or what starts out as normal stress about something like money or grades or being late to something, I know what caused the attack. Sometimes getting some relief from the trigger, like leaving the situation or talking through it, can be all it takes to help end the attack. Unfortunately, sometimes it isn’t. Don’t sit there and say, “well it’s over now so you need to calm down.” Because I can’t calm down and trust me, I wish I could. Just because I’m not looking at the trigger anymore doesn’t mean I’m not still thinking about it. (Side note: don’t ever tell someone having an anxiety or panic attack to “just calm down.” It’s condescending and all it will do is infuriate and upset them even more. We wish we could just calm down but we can’t and it’s not that simple.)
No two anxiety attacks are the same. Everything from the trigger (or lack thereof), the emotions/symptoms I’m feeling (sometimes I’m worried and shaking and having trouble breathing, sometimes I’m irritable and all my muscles will be tense), to what is going to help will all be different. Just because something helped during one attack doesn’t mean it will help every time. Just because you read online that a certain method or technique worked for someone doesn’t mean it’ll work for me. Instead of assuming you know what’s going on in my head and that you can fix it just ask me what I need or what would help. And then respect that what I say is what you should do, even if you think you know better. Yes, there have been many, many times I looked back on something and said “wow mom/dad was right” but it has never been after an anxiety attack. Trust me on this.
Okay, this is a big one. I’m not trying to act like this. I wish I could be “normal” like you want me to be. I’m not trying to be high maintenance. This isn’t a personality trait. I have very little to no control over it at any given time. I can’t help it. Please don’t yell at me for getting upset about something you think is insignificant. Don’t tell me I’m acting like a baby or being a brat. I’m not 12 anymore. GAD is a disorder and I don’t have control over it, no matter how hard I try. And it’s not like I understand it either. It confuses me and makes me mad and frustrates me just as much as you. Even after years of struggling with it I’m still learning and trying to understand. Please don’t leave me on my own to figure it out. I may be living on my own and starting to do this whole adult thing but you’re still my parents and I still need some help sometimes.
The last thing I wish my parents understood about my anxiety is that it isn’t on and off like a switch. There are good days and bad days but for the most part it’s something I’m always dealing with, even if it isn’t obvious. It’s part of who I am. It’s not just having an anxiety attack then being fine, it’s all day every day. It’s reminding myself to breathe and try to relax. It’s learning to let the little things roll off my back. It’s dealing with triggers in the best way I can so I don’t have an attack. All of that being said, I’m not in a 24/7 state of anxiety. Like I said, there’s good days and bad days. Sometimes it’ll be really bad for an hour or a day or even a week but eventually it cools off and it’s more of a dull roar than a storm. And sometimes those periods when it’s bad will be close together and sometimes I can be better for weeks at a time. I don’t know when it’ll get better or worse so I can’t tell you.
Long story short, my anxiety is a constant battle and it’s hard when, as my parents, you don’t make the effort to understand it or meet me where I’m at. Please listen to what I try to tell you. I know I’m not always great at explaining it but I don’t want to be alone in this. It’s real and it’s part of me and it means the world to me when you put in the effort to understand.